Play must go on: the essential role of play during the pandemic

Play must go on: the essential role of play during the pandemic

Is play a powerful antidote to the stress, uncertainty and isolation of a pandemic-changed world? According to health professionals, psychologists and leading educators, the answer is a resounding yes – not only for children but adults, too.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence was mounting in favour of play and outdoor, active and unstructured play in particular, as a major contributor to our physical, emotional and social wellbeing across every stage of our lives.

Now, as we move into the third year of COVID pandemic and we continue to focus on how to take care of ourselves and our children, students and communities amidst the stress of COVID outbreaks and restrictions, play is recognised as more than just a welcome release. The research shows making the time and space for play isn’t just a “nice to have”: it’s essential and highly beneficial.

Here, we explore the reasons why play must go on for children and adults.

Building on the proven benefits of play

UNICEF, with the support of the Lego Foundation, has drawn on global studies into the role of play in childhood development to confirm play’s role in supporting a child’s cognitive, physical, social, emotional and language development. Through play, children:

  • develop social connections
  • learn to regulate emotions
  • build self-esteem and empathy, and even
  • improve their immune systems.

The same report revealed that play also has positive effects on parental wellbeing and mental health, with 9 in 10 parents stating that “play is fundamental to their own happiness and makes them feel more relaxed, energised and creative”. Benefits experienced by adults in general, not just parents and carers of small children.

Why play must go on for children

The pandemic has placed immense pressure on everyone, children included. From strained social interactions to routine disruptions, our youngest have had to navigate a changing landscape with more than a few curveballs. For many children and adolescents, school has been the staple, and schools have been uniquely positioned to move forward in constructive ways.

Driven by this knowledge, a group of academics, health professionals and education leaders, to form the Global Recess Alliance in 2020. With signatories from around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, their statement underscores the need for play:

“Providing children with regular opportunities to play, socialise, rest, and re-energize is imperative. The opportunities improve mood, well-being, school engagement, behavior, learning, focus, attendance and overall school climate.”

Included in their pointers for schools is to offer a variety of outside spaces that provide a range of play options; and take steps to ensure recess time is physically and emotionally safe, healthy, and beneficial.

It’s a view that’s supported by academic and author of “Let the Children Play”, Pasi Sahlberg, who says we should adopt the principle “work hard, play harder” in and out of school:

“Regular play, especially free outdoor play, have wide range of benefits to children’s wellbeing and learning. When children can’t play for any reason, anxiety and toxic stress can harm their healthy development and thereby jeopardise their learning at school.”

Why play must go on for adults

In May 2021, the Office of Economic Development (OECD) released figures showing the significant (and unprecedented) worldwide increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression, stating:

“The COVID‑19 crisis has heightened the risk factors generally associated with poor mental health – financial insecurity, unemployment, fear – while protective factors – social connection, employment and educational engagement, access to physical exercise, daily routine, access to health services – fell dramatically.”

While parameters have been placed around where we can play and exercise, medical professionals have urged people to stay active and embrace play to beat the pandemic blues. This advice is based on the proven benefits of play and exercise for adults which range from relieving stress by triggering the release of endorphins to stimulating the mind, increasing creativity and productivity, and improving relationships and connection with others.

Pandemic-proof play spaces

Across the pandemic, Playground Centre has worked alongside schools, councils and communities to ensure people have access to quality outdoor play and recreation spaces. This has included inspired new play spaces and playground upgrades which have boosted play value through the inclusion of a wider variety of equipment with targeted benefits for different age groups.

Here’s what we’ve learned are the key ingredients to spaces that brighten people’s worlds through play:

  1. Inclusive – all ages, all abilities play equipment and experiences.
  2. Eco-inspired – play spaces that promote a connection to nature.
  3. Fitness-focused – outdoor exercise stations and adventure courses.
  4. Hygiene conscious – play equipment with innovative, anti-bacterial surfaces.

Our State of Play: Portfolio of Play 2021 ‘look book’ showcases just some of the amazing community and school play spaces we helped design and build last year. Register to receive your FREE copy today.